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Rights groups: Coalition failing to prevent civilian deaths in Mosul

By Andrew V. Pestano
Displaced families travel to positions held by Iraqi security forces in southern Mosul on March 11. The United Nations and Amnesty International have called on Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State to safeguard the lives of civilians after reports of a surge in civilian casualties due to Iraqi fighting and coalition airstrikes. Photo by Omar al-Hayali/EPA
Displaced families travel to positions held by Iraqi security forces in southern Mosul on March 11. The United Nations and Amnesty International have called on Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State to safeguard the lives of civilians after reports of a surge in civilian casualties due to Iraqi fighting and coalition airstrikes. Photo by Omar al-Hayali/EPA

March 28 (UPI) -- The United Nations and Amnesty International said Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition have killed hundreds of civilians in airstrikes and urged the military powers to prioritize protecting non-combatants in the battle against the Islamic State.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein on Tuesday "deplored the massive loss of civilian lives in west Mosul" in recent weeks due to Islamic State attacks and Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

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The call to protect civilians comes after up to 150 people were apparently killed in a coalition airstrike in west Mosul's Jadida neighborhood, an incident which officials at U.S. Central Command said they are investigating.

Iraq launched its military offensive to retake western Mosul from the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, ISIL and ISIS, on Feb. 19. The offensive to retake the entire city began Oct. 17, led by Iraqi forces and aided by the Kurdish Peshmerga, a Shiite-led militia and the U.S.-led international coalition.

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Hussein welcomed the investigation by CENTCOM and Iraqi security forces into the most serious incidents in which civilians died, but said those investigations must be thorough, transparent and public.

"Bodies continue to be found in buildings where civilians were reportedly held by ISIL as human shields, and were subsequently killed by airstrikes conducted by Iraqi security forces and international coalition forces, as well as by improvised explosive devices allegedly planted in the same buildings by ISIL," Hussein said in a statement. "Numerous other civilians have been killed by shelling and have been gunned down by ISIL snipers as they tried to flee."

The United Nations estimates at least 307 people have been killed mainly due to airstrikes from Feb. 17 through March 22.

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Amnesty International called into question the legality of the Iraqi military, which is on the ground in Mosul, and the U.S.-led coalition's tactics that caused a "shocking spike in civilian casualties."

Ahead of the ground offensive to capture west Mosul, Iraqi officials told residents not to flee as they could come into the crossfire or they could be targeted by Islamic State militants. Despite that warning, civilians have been killed by Iraqi security forces and coalition airstrikes.

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Amnesty International accused the anti-Islamic State military powers of failing to take adequate precautions to safeguard civilian lives in both east and west Mosul. The human rights organization said such actions could amount to war crimes.

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"Evidence gathered on the ground in east Mosul points to an alarming pattern of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside. The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law," Amnesty International official Donatella Rovera said in a statement.

"The fact that Iraqi authorities repeatedly advised civilians to remain at home instead of fleeing the area, indicates that coalition forces should have known that these strikes were likely to result in a significant numbers of civilian casualties. Disproportionate attacks and indiscriminate attacks violate international humanitarian law and can constitute war crimes."

Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition to immediately launch an independent and impartial investigation into the "appalling" civilian death toll in the Mosul offensive.

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